War Stories

So We Win Fallujah. Then What?

The big question is what comes after.

So, the long-postponed offensive in Fallujah is finally under way, though it’s unclear to what end. Hundreds, probably thousands, of insurgents will be killed. At best, the American soldiers and Marines will take control of the city. But then what? Fallujah isn’t Masada or the Alamo, some last-ditch outpost where the rebels whoop their final battle cry, rally one more round of resistance, then pass into history when their last rifleman falls.

The problem is that the insurgents are active all over the Sunni Triangle. They dramatized this fact over the weekend. In Samarra, attacks on Iraqi police stations killed 33, including the local national guard commander, and injured 48. In Ramadi, a slew of suicide car bombings wounded 20 U.S. Marines. In Haditha and Haqlaniyah, guerrillas raided three police stations, killing 22 officers. In Diyala Province, the governor’s aide and two members of the provincial governing council were killed. Bombs also exploded across Baghdad, at a Catholic church, and against U.S. convoys along the main road to the airport.

The highly coordinated attacks in Samarra are particularly disturbing, as U.S. and Iraqi forces supposedly pacified that city just last month. They might now accomplish the same feat in Fallujah; between 10,000 and 15,000 American soldiers and Marines are involved in the offensive, after all. But after the fighting is over, the siege can’t be sustained for long. Residents, who have fled the city in anticipation of the battle, will want to return home; commercial traffic will once again flow; and it will be hard to block a new crop of insurgents from coming and going—especially if many of the soldiers and Marines move on to the next insurgent stronghold. As has widely been noted in many other contexts, the U.S. troops in Iraq are too stretched to run a tight occupation in one area while waging full-blown combat in another. (In the old days, “two-front war” meant fighting simultaneously in Europe and Asia. Now, apparently, it means Fallujah and Sadr City.)

And what of this campaign’s immediate goal—to clear the area of insurgents so that Sunnis can vote safely in the elections this January? Unfortunately, the connection between an insurgent-free Fallujah and a trouble-free election is less than clear cut. First, many Sunni leaders, including Iraq’s interim president, Ghazi al-Yawer, have spoken out against the offensive; several have threatened to retaliate with a Sunni boycott of the election. The urge to boycott will be stiffened further if the Shiites appear certain to win anyway—and that’s what seems to be shaping up, given a) the population’s Shiite majority; b) Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s plan to coordinate the various Shiite parties in order to avoid defeat by internal turmoil; and c) the added bonus of the proposal to open the ballot boxes to exiles, almost all of whom are Shiites.

As for accomplishing the war’s broader, long-term goal—crushing the insurgents and securing a stable, free Iraq—the offensive in Fallujah is at best a shot in the dark. If success is swift and civilian casualties minimal, even the operation’s critics might come around or at least drop their resistance. However, urban warfare is rarely a neat affair, especially when the indigenous fighters have had six months to fortify defenses, prepare booby traps, and plan back-alley ambushes. The U.S. troops expect to face 3,000 to 5,000 insurgents, who are unlikely to give up the fight easily. A little over half of Fallujah’s 300,000 residents have reportedly fled the city, but this means that a bit fewer than half have stayed. They were all warned to leave town. The offensive is going to be a massive undertaking; the city is going to be pummeled by fire from the ground and the air; it will be hard to distinguish innocent civilians from insurgent fighters; and, given the warnings and the waiting and the declared urgency of the mission, there will be little incentive to try.

In this context, it is intriguing that the U.S. forces’ first move, upon crossing into Fallujah Monday, was to seize the main hospital. In part, the step was practical. The site will be needed to care for the wounded. In part, it was a political. During the offensive last spring, U.S. commanders have said, the hospital issued inflated reports of civilian casualties for propaganda purposes. Capturing the site will not only prevent a repetition, it will also allow the United States to control the message about casualties. There are almost certain to be many deaths and injuries; how many of them will be reported is another matter. How wildly the rumors of casualties will flow anyway, in the regional media and elsewhere, may shape the reaction to the battle—within Iraq, the Arab world, the United Nations (which must play a vital role in Iraq if the elections and subsequent reconstruction efforts are to succeed), and the American public.

It is no coincidence that the offensive was launched shortly after our own presidential election. Given President George W. Bush’s rosy campaign rhetoric about freedom on the march and Vice President Dick Cheney’s assurances that things in Iraq were going “surprisingly well,” a sudden escalation of the war—especially if heavy casualties, American ones, ensued—might have dimmed their prospects at the polls.

The background of this battle is worth recalling. Late last March, four U.S. contractors were brutally killed by guerrillas in Fallujah—beaten, dismembered, dragged through the streets, set on fire, and strung up on bridge cable. Many back home invoked the specter of Somalia. The wide consensus in the Pentagon and the White House was that something had to be done to punish the perpetrators and reverse the humiliation. In April, Marines prepared to storm Fallujah—but, at the last minute, were held back. Negotiations took place with tribal chiefs. Finally, the Marines were ordered to retreat, and instead a brigade of Iraqi officers, led by a former Baathist general, went in to restore order. At first glance, it seemed a plausible solution—a Sunni army unit to keep the peace in Sunni territory while U.S. officials carried on talks with political leaders. Soon, though, it all broke down. The Sunni soldiers either fled or joined the resistance. The tribal chiefs turned out to have less authority than they claimed. The insurgents took over the town, and foreign terrorists felt free to use it as a base.

We still don’t know just who these insurgents are: how many of them are foreign terrorists, how many are simply locals angered by the occupation and seeking to avenge dead friends and relatives. The lack of knowledge about such matters—about who is in charge, who’s committing the violence, and thus how to go about defeating or co-opting them—explains, in part, why the United States has failed at political attempts to control the violence.

In any case, if the Bush administration wanted to retake Fallujah after last spring’s failure, they could have remounted the offensive as early as June. But, again, Bush’s own electoral calculus ruled against such a risky move. So the second storming was put off until mid-November, even though this gave the insurgents a half-year to prepare and allowed little leeway for a peaceful prelude to Iraqi elections.

Bush probably intends the offensive to serve as a final showdown for the insurgents, but, regardless of the immediate outcome (and I write this with no pleasure whatever), it might be a final showdown for us instead. There are two factors at work here.

First, the offensive is billed as a joint operation by the U.S. military and the Iraqi national guard, but it hasn’t worked out that way. National Public Radio’s Anne Garrels, who is embedded with the Marines in Fallujah, reports that of the 500 Iraqi soldiers originally deployed to go in alongside U.S. forces only 170 were still on station when the operation began. The rest had deserted—whether simply to flee for their safety or to join the other side. And these Iraqis were members of the 36th Special Operations battalion, the elite of the country’s new security forces. In short, quite apart from what happens in Fallujah, the Iraqis are not remotely ready to provide defense by themselves.

Second, coupled with this grim realization, the U.S. military is finding itself increasingly alone and isolated in this war. A small story in the Nov. 4 New York Times listed the various countries that are pulling out of this “coalition.” Hungary had just announced, the day before, that it would withdraw its 300 troops from Iraq. This move would come on top of withdrawals, either actual or announced, by Spain (1,300 troops); Poland (2,400); the Netherlands (1,400); Thailand (450); the Dominican Republic (302); Nicaragua (115); Honduras (370); the Philippines (51); Norway (155); and New Zealand (60). Other countries will soon reduce their troop levels— Singapore, from 191 to 32; Moldova, from 42 to 12; and Bulgaria, from 483 to 430. For the most part, these aren’t large numbers—the United States has always contributed the vast bulk of the forces, with Britain, Australia, and Italy trailing far behind—but that’s not the point. Their joining the coalition was presented as a show of international support; their departing will be widely perceived as an erosion of that support.

So what to do? Bush may well see the Fallujah offensive as a last gamble to turn things around. My guess is that, if it goes “well,” by any stretch of a definition—and if the elections proceed with the slightest semblance of order—he might make preparations to declare victory and pull out. Such a move would almost certainly trigger chaos, but could this chaos be much more rampant than the state of life there now?